Monday, May 7, 2012

Creating a Character's Emotional Arc: in stages 1 - 4

Imagine how excited I was to learn that my years of training in energy medicine and psychology could actually help me construct a fictional character’s emotional arc!  Now quadruple that and add a cherry on top because when I think about the ripple effect and how relaying this info on to you and how you can use it to reach your readers, I’m over the moon with excitement and gratitude.  

We’ve arrived at the fun part, where we see how to create a character’s emotional arc.  Let’s get to it. We’ll start with stages 1 through 4.

1. The smoking gun
Picture a smoking gun in your mind and chances are you’ll sense something sinister is afoot. Smoking guns indicate that someone violated a personal boundary or an agreement on how they are expected to behave around you. In writing, we call this threat or danger “the inciting incident.”

2. Anger  Biologically speaking, our bodies react to a perceived threat or danger by releasing certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, speeding our heart rate and increasing blood pressure, slowing digestion, increasing blood flow to major muscle groups and adjusting other autonomic nervous functions in order to give our bodies a burst of energy and strength.

Emotionally, the inciting incident triggers anger. Anger may be hard to recognize beneath the layers of anxiety, self-pity and sadness, but it’s there and your character will need to use that anger as a driving force to move through to the next stage. 

Finding the anger can be difficult because by culture or by nature, a lot of people don't allow themselves to get angry. They feel uncomfortable or even go so far as to believe they have no right to their anger. Are you one of them? Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to fume in order for our characters to do the same. 

Look for clues to your character's anger. If you find her saying something like, “It’s not worth getting upset over,” that's a clear indication that she is stuffing her anger. Other indications are typical behavioral responses to the threat. Males typically respond with fight (aggression) or flight (social withdrawal, substance abuse), while females typically respond by protecting to their children, if they have any, and by seeking social support in groups. But hey, it’s your novel. Who’s to say that your character must conform to these typical roles? 

Just remember that at this stage your character does not want to be nice, she wants to be ANGRY.

3. Projection and Blaming
Now that your character is good and angry, go ahead and let her blame someone for causing her to feel that way. Not taking responsibility for our own feelings is called projecting. Many people project and blame out of earshot, but never confront the person with whom they are upset. It’s easy to see why. Most people would think twice about expressing their anger to the person holding a smoking gun.

4. Expressing anger and releasing pain
Your character has finally surmounted the obstacles of stages 1, 2 and 3. A round of applause is in order because it takes courage to make it this far.  You’ve reached the turning point in your novel. This is the step where your character expresses her anger toward the transgressor, the villain, the mean and evil dude, and finally stands up for herself. This is when your reader is anticipating a smack down and it is a cause for celebration.

How your character stands up for herself, depends on the intensity of the boundary violation and the inciting smoking gun incident. Mild violations may require just speaking up about it. Stronger violations, the kind that elicit reader response, may entail speaking up plus throwing in a few choice cuss words for good measure, dammit!

But what if your character is not willing to scold the mean and evil dude? Totally not surprising. Most people feel pretty weak when it comes to expressing their anger. Ultimately though, suppressing anger is futile. Unexpressed anger is toxic and your character will find a way to release it. Instead of confronting the evil dude, you might find your character turning anger inward against herself, or letting it out sideways by lashing out at the innocent, or even taking a circuitous route by engaging in passive aggressive behavior against the perpetrator. How your character manages her anger might violate personal boundaries and agreements and trigger an angry response from someone else. And yes, you can count me in among the wicked and wily scumbling my fingers and sneering, “Mwah ha haaaa!” because this kind of tension triggers subplots.  

But remember, if your goal is an emotionally rewarding ending, suppressing anger is not ultimately the answer. Your character must express her anger directly in order to release the pain.

A lot of writers will stop here, either subconsciously or purposefully, with the main character confronting and then defeating the mean evil dude followed by a quick conclusion, and call it a victory. 

How easy is it for you to express your anger? Do you confront the transgressor or does your anger come out in other ways? Are you uncomfortable at any point? Where is your sticking point? 

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I am going to send this to a few writers I know.